Not related to VOOM, but if you don't have one,...

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Sean Mota

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forget about VOOM....


Choosing big, flat TV isn't easy


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What's more, just because a TV earns the digital distinction doesn't mean it can display stunning high-definition images. The reason is that the digital standard allows lower-quality signals. You want HDTV, you'd best ask for HDTV.

You'll still likely be watching a lot of conventional TV, so have the retailer show you "analog" content on sets you are considering (along with HDTV and DVDs). Analog TV can look pretty funky on some digital televisions. Take time to stare at the set in the store, because heaven knows you'll be staring at it a lot in the future.

That pales next to the $24,000 for a Pioneer 61-inch plasma set, available at high-end retailer Harvey Electronics (HRVE).

Now consider what's coming. LG Electronics has just unveiled a 3½-inch-thick, 76-inch-screen model that the company claims is the world's largest plasma panel. It will likely cost "tens of thousands of dollars" when it hits the market late next year.

I should point out the distinction between flat-panel TVs and flat-screen models. The former refers to svelte plasma or liquid crystal display (LCD) types, the latter to old-style TVs that have flat (as opposed to curvy) pieces of glass covering their screens. There is nothing flat about the backs of these ultraheavy TVs, which jut out like a pot belly.

At the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month, some makers will trumpet plug-and-play TVs that no longer require a set-top box to watch digital cable programming. Instead, you will insert a card (probably from your cable provider) into a slot on the TV. RCA (Parent: GE) says it will unveil a dozen HDTVs of this ilk at CES, following Panasonic, which introduced a model in September.

But for a certain crowd, plasma is the be-all. "Most people who have plenty of space and plenty of money are going to buy plasmas because they're sexy," says Dennis Hartwick, an in-home audio/video specialist at Harvey. But Hartwick says tube sets of the type you grew up with provide the brightest pictures and may be the best choice for less-affluent buyers. Indeed, it is something of a paradox that the most expensive sets don't always provide the most brilliant pictures.

Here are the various options:

•HDTV on the cheap. Those tube sets provide superb pictures and viewing angles and are an excellent choice if you are sitting close by. You can find a few good models for less than $1,000. But I'd recommend a widescreen model, which mimics a movie screen in proportion, vs. the traditional squarish TV set. Zenith and Panasonic sell 34-inch widescreens for about $2,000. Biggest drawbacks to tubes: relatively small screens, large cabinets and bulk.

•Project this. If you require a larger screen — from 40 inches to 80 inches — a rear-projection set provides a fine picture and decent value. But they can be as big as a defensive lineman.

Some newer rear-projection TVs incorporate LCD technology (though in a different way than the flat-panel LCDs) to eliminate heft.

Panasonic sells a 50-inch rear-projection LCD for $3,000, a third of the cost of its 50-inch plasma. It's about four times thicker than the 4-inch-thick plasma, but smaller than a tube-based rear projection.

Some TVs from LG, Mitsubishi, RCA and Samsung make use of a Texas Instruments technology known as digital light processing, or DLP. Others exploit a scheme known as liquid crystal on silicon in which computer chips are coated with liquid crystals. LCOS TVs are generally lighter than conventional projection TVs. Philips' not-terribly-deep 55-inch LCOS-based Cineos model goes for $4,199.

•Flat is where it's at. Slim LCDs and plasmas satisfy aesthetic requirements and make a statement to your friends — something along the lines of: "I earned a huge year-end bonus. You?"

Flat-panel LCD TVs boast screens similar to those found on laptops; you'll find LCD computer monitors that double as TVs. Their pictures, while lovely, don't generally measure up to a tube TV. The quality is getting better, and the sets can represent a fine choice if you are constrained by space. Some are as thin as 3 inches. They are comparatively lightweight and skinny, with screen sizes generally ranging from about 12 inches to more than 40. A new 42-inch integrated high-definition flat-panel LCD from Sony is due next month for the not-so-thin price of $7,999.

But dazzling plasmas are most in vogue. In terms of screen size, they generally pick up where LCDs top off, from about 40 inches skyward. Plasma can be less than 4 inches thick, and the screens deliver vibrant color pictures that are constantly improving, though contrast levels don't match tubes'. Some models are noisy and don't perform well at high altitudes. And plasma, unlike LCD, suffers from a phenomenon known as burn-in. That's when a small stationary image (for example, the C-Span logo on the corner of your screen or a stock ticker) gets permanently etched on the display. Fortunately, the burn-in problem is being addressed.

Now, if only the industry can work on avoiding the burn in your wallet.
 

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